In sports, choosing which players to send onto the field is perhaps the most critical decision a coach can make. The equivalent in business is what’s known as the high-performance team: a carefully selected squad of employees chosen for their skills and assembled to tackle an important challenge or project.
How you set about creating this type of specialist team is one of the biggest determinants of whether or not the team will succeed at their mission. That’s why knowing which characteristics are vital to the optimal running of a high-performance team is so important. If you get it wrong, they could be at a disadvantage before they even leave the starting block.
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What are high-performing teams?
High-performance teams are groups of skilled employees with specialized expertise working in close coordination with one another toward a specific goal or shared vision.
The difference between a high-performance team and a regular team comes down to how they approach challenges, how they share joint accountability, and their relatively high degree of employee motivation and professional cohesion.
Benefits of having high-performing teams
The advantages of building a high-performance team can be significant, with broader benefits for the organization, the members of the team itself, and other employees across the rest of the company.
For the business, there’s the immediate reward of meeting the specific objective or overcoming the problem the high-performance team was created to work on. That could be anything from a redesigned client service to a complex office move to a last-hurdle project push to establishing a strong company culture.
But assembling a successful task force can bring long-lasting performance benefits to the company and its workers, even after the team is disbanded or set to work on something else. Focused, frictionless collaboration of the kind required to accomplish high-priority objectives can build trust among team members while bringing the wider workforce into alignment behind the company’s vision.
What’s the purpose of building high-performing teams?
So what can a high-performance team do that a regular team can’t—and if it’s possible to build them, why can’t every team in a company be a high-performance team? More performance is always good, right?
Well, the short answer is that not all teams need to be high-performance. Traditional team structures exist to serve the long-term goals of the business and achieve routine and predictable outcomes. They have a value all their own, which isn’t to be understated.
If your company is a racing team, then high-performance teams are your pit crew. They exist to execute quickly and solve complex problems in real time, and they can face challenges that other types of working groups wouldn’t expect to encounter.
A high-performance team might be formed in response to an impending crisis or a time-limited opportunity, so they’re given more flexibility and resources to find a solution than regular employees would be offered. Because of this, the formation and makeup of these task forces are fundamentally important to their success.
Characteristics of high-performing teams
Because high-performance teams are specialists by definition, the rules defining their composition will naturally differ depending on the type of work they do. A high-performance team working for a blue-chip finance firm in New York might require a different set of attributes than one that’s part of a fashion house in Milan, for example.
But there are characteristics that these types of teams tend to share, regardless of their industry and their objectives. Let’s look at some common attributes of high-performance teams:
- They are strategic thinkers. A member of a high-performance team can be expected to have an elevated sense of strategy. The tasks these employees are given tend to fall outside of routine thinking, so an intrinsic ability to navigate novel problems is one of the most important skills to have.
- They form strong relationships. These teams tend to be small and close-knit, with almost no room for underperforming members or redundant roles. That makes each person’s contribution to the task vitally important to the outcome, so sharp interpersonal skills and a talent for relationship-building are required.
- They have clear goals and individual roles. A high-performance team effectively operates as a single entity, with team members acting as seamlessly integrated parts of the larger group. Each person should understand their responsibilities and purpose within the team—as well as the responsibilities of others—so that they can more effectively push toward a common goal.
- They draw from the best talent. High-performance teams self-select for specific talent and expertise. That means having a deep understanding of the range of skills possessed by employees across the company, and knowing the best way to implement those skills to ensure that the team is operating as effectively as it possibly can.
- They exhibit great leadership. Effective leadership is nearly always at the heart of a high-performance team. Leaders are there to maintain a sharp focus on the team’s given objective with one eye, while keeping sight of the company’s wider vision with the other. This helps prevent a high-performance team from veering off course and away from the bigger picture.
How to develop a high-performing team
Assembling a high-performance team is easier said than done, and it can’t happen overnight. For a company to put together a high-performance team, leaders must be able to identify and select employees with known strengths and attributes, who can collaborate well with others.
Leaders must also build a team that’s cohesive and stable, which requires a deep understanding of employee values and the existing relationships between people within the company. Diversity and inclusion is key to the foundation of high-performance teams, too, as a greater breadth of perspectives helps to ensure that the decisions being made are the best they can be.
When assembled correctly and applied effectively, a high-performance team can be the difference between a company’s success and failure in today’s challenging business landscape. Understanding what goes into creating one could potentially change the course of your organization.
Steve Hogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the travel editor of City AM newspaper and the deputy editor of City AM Magazine, where his work focuses on technology, travel, and entertainment.